I don’t remember the exact moment when I fell hopelessly in love with football, but I can come close. It wasn’t the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A. I have faint memories of football clubs from my time as a stupid kid. Mostly because I’d hear these weird words tumble out of my father’s mouth from time to time: AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United. I thought it was grownup talk or something. The six or seven-year-old me was into things most six or seven-year-olds would consider either totally lame or supercool. My little cousin and I used to put up these elaborate and improvised skits, both of us acting out our bizarre imaginarium. Our support cast included a talking monkey, a group of rogue GI-Joes and a gradually declining Lego population. The regulars also included an invisible character whose make-believe invisibility was borne out of an actual necessity: no prop available. Besides an old photo of a two-year-old me with a nest of curly hair, hockey stick in hand, chasing a ball in my underwear, there is nothing to prove I liked any sport. One fine summer, that changed.
The first World Cup I vaguely remember is France ’98. Some… thing, that involved grown men with weird hair running about on a grassy plot as thousands of people with colored faces cheered them on, was the rage that summer. For one month, words like ‘Ronaldo’, ‘Zidane’, ‘Beckham’, ‘Batistuta’ entered the general lexicon and seemed to hold incredible meaning even though they were nowhere to be found in the dictionary. Naturally, I was curious.
“Why doesn’t he pick up the ball and put it in that net?”
“You can’t. You have to kick it in.”
“Those are the rules. That’s why it’s called football.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
I don’t recall watching a full game, but I remember my father shaking me up from my slumber during the final and pointing wildly at the TV, shouting “Zizou, Zizou”. A bald dude kept using his head to put the ball in the net. This was new. Toward the end, a ponytailed guy ran past the yellow shirts and scored and the television set exploded. France ’98 was done, but I wasn’t. This was only the beginning, a crash course in football, the greatest game in the world.
But France ’98 wasn’t the moment I was talking about. That wasn’t love, that was education. I now knew that a ball with honeycomb patterns was a supposedly fun thing to kick and this thing they called the ‘World Cup’, a month-long festival (?) where men with funny names assemble to do that supposedly fun thing, was a supposedly fun thing to see. And it was coming back in four years. I had to get ready.
Four years is a long time, especially for a kid. In four years, I could’ve just forgotten that this whole World Cup thing existed. I could’ve discovered another sport. I could’ve discovered girls. But instead, I went to my mother and said “I want a football.” Smart move, kid. And there I was, holding in my hands the very thing that people are crazy about. I remember gazing at it, admiring its roundness. I remember counting the black and white hexagons. You pump a bit of air in it and that’s it. It was that simple. It was that beautiful. The first time you kick a football, you feel something in your stomach. Your foot meets the ball, there’s a muffled thud and the ball goes in the direction you kicked it. You want to chase it and kick it some more. It becomes perfectly clear why 22 men run around a huge field chasing it and why the world would want to watch that on TV. It is magical. It puts you under a spell. And you can see it in the eyes of the men chasing the ball. There is nothing else on their mind, no other thought except a singular obsession for the ball to be at their feet again. It’s human nature to kick anything round(ish) and lying around. The Vikings did it with a severed head! The English then blew up a pig’s bladder and kicked it around. Ignore the violent history of football’s beginning, kicking the round thing just felt right. I felt right as rain to an eight-year-old me. Soon, things around the house were falling and breaking. I had realised you didn’t even need other people to play football. You just needed a wall. The simple act of kicking the ball at the wall, for it to return back at your feet, was cathartic. Besides all the kicking, I was also devouring any knowledge about the game I could. I now knew that Beckham played for Manchester United and he could take a mean freekick. I also knew what a freekick was. I knew that Zidane was at Real Madrid and that he was the bald dude who made all those men in yellow shirts cry four years ago. I knew that the men in yellow shirts were Brazil and they were the best team in the world. In 2001, India was introduced to the Premier League. ESPN started broadcasting three live games a week; one on Saturday and two on Sunday. I only caught glimpses and it was mostly Manchester United. By now, Beckham was a god. They even made him his own temple and installed his statue carved out of gold in Bangkok. The mania was maximum. It felt as if the world was about to blow up. In hindsight, no year had timing quite as good as 2002. I was ripe for picking.
Korea-Japan is still the greatest World Cup I have seen in my lifetime. It had great players, great kits, great matches, great upsets, the best World Cup logo and the best official ball, the Fevernova. I remember using a marker to draw the Fevernova design on the worn out white ball I owned. The 2002 Fifa World Cup was the first one I was totally invested in. I saw every minute of every game. I was captivated, and not just by the football. This was graduation for me. Football lingo, aesthetics, traditions, celebrations, hairstyles were being fed to me like Neo being pumped with all martial arts knowledge before his Matrix combat training. Beckham’s blond faux-hawk was a sensation. He was like a popstar with an incredibly gifted right foot. Ronaldo’s triangle trim was outrageous. Was that even allowed? Could I do those things to my hair and not be smacked by my mother? Korea-Japan was that period for me when you know you are falling in love with someone and you can’t help it. And the infatuation reached its peak when I saw a silky, sinewy man named Miroslav Klose head in his second goal against Saudi Arabia, run toward the corner flag and somersault in a way that I thought — and still think — defied physics. Arms stretched out like a plane, maintaining moderate speed, Klose turned into a coil. His head lunged down towards the pitch, his legs arched upward, his torso curled into a ball and voila! His feet were back on the ground and he was smiling. What a magic trick! And in that moment, I was done. Hook, line and sinker. Brazil went on win the World Cup, the summer was over and I was reborn.Embed from Getty Images
Sixteen years, three World Cups, one destroyed knee and thousands of words written on the game; today is another beginning. Just as the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Moscow, just as some other unsuspecting kid falls hopelessly in love with football like I did all those years ago, just as the world blows up, Corner at Ninety takes shape. This has been on my mind for long. When 2018 came along, it took a while to register that this was a World Cup year. That this summer will be different from all the other summers. But somehow, something felt amiss. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. As a kid, I could feel it in my bones when the World Cup was at the gates. Now, I know it’s here, but I don’t feel giddy. Maybe it’s just a part of growing up. You are less hyped about things, you stop feeling things in your stomach. So I thought it’s the perfect time to start this website. I threw in a bunch of names in a hat, a friend suggested that Corner at Ninety sounds sticky, and so it stuck. The name refers to a last minute corner. It always gives you hope, but is mostly useless. Make what you will of it.
It’s early stages, and I hope the site grows and learns and changes like people do. It is rudimentary and I hope to bring more things to it over time. I’ll be writing here throughout the World Cup and I hope people come here and read. More importantly, I hope people contribute. People who love football and have things to say about it. I want you to reach out and tell stories. I hope this site becomes a corner for good and prolific writing on the game. Corner at Ninety will be a home for personal essays, stories about the beautiful game and a life spent with it. It will be a place to argue about pointless stuff and spin a good yarn about the unbearable heaviness of being Messi. It could be a place to write a 1,000 words about the magical powers of Batistuta’s hair or the clockwork consistency of Chhetri. I hope it will be whatever it needs to be. Most of all, I hope it is as fun as the game it is dedicated to. Now, do I hear a whistle?